BBC archives - Gone but not forgotten

The BBC is archiving online some of the great TV shows in their history. But what about the ones they wiped – and the ones they should have wiped? Andrew Roberts reports

The BBC is trumpeting its BBC Online Archive, but it does continue to raise awkward questions concerning the amount of material that does not survive. Some of the wiped programmes such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Not Only... But Also and early Dr Who episodes are already notorious but somewhat less outcry appears to have greeted the news that only two editions of ITV's The Saturday Banana are believed to exist. For any reader of a certain age who spent their formative years in the Southern Television region, The Saturday Banana is a vague but disquieting memory of a partially networked children's magazine show that always seemed to have Bill Oddie supervising zany stunts in the studio car park. A rare tape of the programme reveals that this is indeed the case, along with the unforgettable sight of a 25ft-high banana statue dominating the grounds of Southern Television.

Programmes such as The Saturday Banana rarely feature in lists of great shows that are "Missing, Believed Wiped". The National Film Archive holds no editions of a 1965 football drama United, and almost an entire BBC soap opera of the late 1960s, The Newcomers, has vanished together with Accident – a 1970s drama series based on the concept of disparate characters meeting in a mass car crash. By the standards of the day they may have been regarded as competent, and attracted reasonable viewing figures, but they are also prime example of the days when popular meant highly dispensable. Why, runs the popular argument, should any broadcasting company have paid to store the likes of Compact, an early 1960s BBC soap opera that was critically loathed in its heyday or any other material of little or no repeat value?

One obvious reason is that sheer historical importance demands their inclusion. The massively popular ITV police show No Hiding Place ran for 400 episodes between 1961 and 1967, only 10% of which survived a mass culling of the Associated Redifusion archives. The world it depicted may have been dated even then, with gentlemanly Superintendents arriving in their Humber Super Snipes to arrest cockney ne'er-do-wells, but its viewing figures show that this image of the police was easily as popular as the BBC's far more hard-hitting and critically acclaimed Z-Cars. Indeed, the fact that BBC1 was still making Dixon of Dock Green at the same time as Euston Films were shooting The Sweeney speaks volumes for the public's mixed view of the police circa 1976 – even if poor old Station Sergeant, George Dixon, was now aged 81 and having to read his cue cards from his prop desk.

Another reason for the retention of such programmes is as a counterbalance to the more corrosive effects of nostalgia. The Challenge TV station used to re-run editions of 321 during the evening, leaving the sensitive viewer in stunned horror at what passed for ITV Saturday night entertainment in the 1980s; namely a mobile dustbin, Ted Rogers and Frank Thornton dressed as a giant owl. Earlier ITV quiz-shows, one of the most notorious outward manifestations of the nascent consumer society, were rarely recorded and those that taped were usually wiped. In some respects this is a relief, sparing the world from as much Hughie Greene as was possible, but in terms of British popular history the few existing editions of ITV's Double Your Money show are invaluable reminders of the reality of the Macmillan era; nervous couples in badly cut clothes being patronised by a large and very sinister Canadian quiz-master in exchange for nylon stockings.

Popular television could, and did, contain as many memorable moments as a more critically acclaimed show; little of the BBC's Dee Time survives but the limited existing footage does have Sammy Davis Jnr giving a live performance. The few recorded episodes of Crackerjack showcase Eammon Andrews hosting the show with all of the ease and verve of a man who looked as though he was about to be arrested at any moment, but they also contain musical gems from the original line-up of The Shadows to Don Maclean and Peter Glaze's cover of David Bowie's "Golden Years".

Occasionally, there are gems to be found in the programmes that escaped the wrath of the archive wiping police – the opening credits of the 1966 ITV series The Ratcatchers are just too groovy for mere words, while Gerald Harper's delightful performance as the BBC's Edwardian superhero Adam Adamant makes it a real tragedy that half of the programmes were wiped – but often the quality of the repeats of no importance to the viewer, for the real reason in their watching is to recapture a particular time in their lives.

To re-watch a former favourite can be a grave error as your memories are all too often more elaborate than the harshly lit and slow-paced reality. To see The Goodies at the age of seven was almost as good as television comedy could be; to watch the show as an adult is all too often to experience bitter disappointment. But those who recall such gems as BBC TV's 1970s drama The Brothers, the over-dramatic acting and the glamorous setting of a haulage yard is an essential part of the experience.

Today, in an era of digital television, the idea of wiping a programme is a truly arcane concept. Shows such as The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Zoey 101, American children's sitcoms that were surprisingly not mentioned in Dante's Inferno, seemingly plague satellite TV stations morning, noon and night. It indeed is a cruel world when such entertainments survive and Dud and Pete were wiped, where the ennobling sound of the Great British Public baying at a middle-aged spinster can be sent around the world in an instant, while Bob Dylan's BBC TV debut remains lost. So, if even your offspring force you to watch Zack and Cody – a "comedy" that bears an eerie similarity to Village of the Damned – it is the price we pay for ensuring that future historians can learn of the depths to which television in the early 21st century could sink. And to prevent any more of the medium's heritage from vanishing into the ether.